Voices from the “Wild North”: Fracking in North Dakota

Williston, Watford City, New Town, Sidney, Montana and a handful of towns like them are located near the epicenter of the Bakken formation, a subsurface geologic strata thought to contain between 4 billion and 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Discovered in 1951, this potential windfall has been sitting for half a century like dinosaurs’ blood beneath a thick layer of marine shale, waiting for the magic bullet to arrive that could liberate it. That bullet finally appeared in the form of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology – fracking – a controversial form of water-intensive high-pressure drilling that requires an average of a million and a quarter gallons of fluid per well and incorporates numerous toxic chemicals at potentially dangerous levels that critics claim can permeate the water table. About 1,800 wells are being added a year along the formation, with much of the oil sitting in tanks while crews lay track from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and hundreds of empty flat-black tank cars sit gleaming in the attenuated daylight.

“It’s like every other boom that’s happened since the Gold Rush,” says Sara. “It brings out the assholes of the earth.”

“Still, this place is something to see,” adds Matt. “This is history in the making.”

Matt is “in the grind” – a chain hand, one of the lower totem positions in a drilling rig crew hierarchy that runs from worm to tool-pusher and company man. That’s not to mention the service groups, hydro-testers, hot oil trucks and all the other secondary positions required – like his friend who’s banking $25,000 a pop pressure-washing rigs and derricks. Matt generally works one week on, one week off, often driving two hours each way on top of a 12-hour shift, and frequently dreams of turning wrenches in his sleep. He makes $70,000 a year for just six or seven months work total, and claims the only time his back starts to hurt is when he’s not working. He’s heard they’re predicting steady work in the Bakken for the next 15 years, and plans to ride the boom for at least the next five.

“You know, I’ve literally stood here and watched an oil worker walk right up to a girl and say, ‘I want to fuck you.’ That’s the mentality. These guys come up here and think they can do whatever they want because they’ve got Halliburton, Hess, Nabors or Schlumberger on their shirt. They’re coming in, hiring the scum of the earth – they couldn’t get a job where they’re from because of their reputation or their mentality. And when this oil boom leaves – if it ever does – this town is gonna be a ghost town.”

“I actually wore a fake engagement ring for a while, but it didn’t make a difference. There are guys here from Louisiana and Oklahoma and all over, a lot of them are ex-cons. So there’s this whole unstable atmosphere. But everyone is making so much money. Almost every night of the week, there’s a block of time when it gets packed – so packed they can’t let more people in. Everyone is drunk; there are fights outside all the time. But the club is like a neutral zone. Personally, my rule is that I don’t date guys who go to strip clubs. But these aren’t guys who typically go to strip clubs. They’re just there because there’s nothing else to do. A lot of times they’re going through some really hard stuff, and they want to talk about it: ‘Oh, my wife’s leaving me and she took our kids’ or ‘I’m a single father….’” She says her lap dances – $20 per three minute song – oftentimes seem more akin to therapy sessions.

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